Best Served Cold
Michigan's New Top Line Shines Outdoors
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
On October 21, 1997, the Cleveland Indians hosted the Florida Marlins in Game Three of the '97 World Series. The game time temperature in Cleveland that night — 38°F — remains the coldest recorded in World Series history.
On Sunday night, in front of an announced attendance of 25,864 who braved a gametime temperature of 28°F, Michigan and Ohio State — wearing helmets in the image of their football counterparts — played the latest in a series of outdoor hockey showcases, this time the "Frozen Diamond Faceoff" at the Indians' Progressive Field.
For the Wolverines, it was their third such outdoor game in three years — a series that, of course, includes "The Big Chill at the Big House" a year ago in Ann Arbor, where a world-record attendance of over 100,000 saw Michigan shut out Michigan State, 5-0.
On Sunday, the setting was more intimate. While some in center field enjoyed a 10-lane snow tubing hill, fans on the first base and third base lines sat close to the action. The game, the first event of its kind ever in Ohio, began with a ceremonial first puck drop by former Ohio State running back Archie Griffin, the only player in college football history to win the Heisman Trophy twice.
But beyond this outdoor game's unique intrigue and drama — the schools' football programs, after all, play North America's "greatest sports rivalry" according to a 2000 ESPN ranking — the game represented another opportunity for one of the nation's best and perhaps most motivated forward lines — the Wolverines' freshman Alex Guptill, senior David Wohlberg, and junior Chris Brown.
Early in December, with his team visiting Alaska amidst a six game winless stretch, Michigan coach Red Berenson put together the trio of NHL draft picks and instantly created one of the best forward lines in the CCHA, if not the country. After a one game adjustment period — a 4-3 loss to Alaska in that weekend's first game — the Wolverines have been almost a different team entirely, unbeaten now in their last nine (7-0-2).
On Sunday, just a few feet from where future Hall of Fame first baseman Jim Thome hit a home run — one of his 600-plus — in that coldest of World Series games, Michigan's top line was at it again, led this time by junior Chris Brown, a 2009 second round draft pick of the Phoenix Coyotes, who scored the game's first goal and added two assists.
"Offensively, we're clicking now," said Berenson. "We put [that] line together, and tonight they had three of our four goals. Last weekend, four of six. They've been a real force for us."
In nine games since the line was created, Brown has 11 points, while Guptill and Wohlberg each have 13. Guptill, a draft pick of the Dallas Stars, has eight points in his last four games, while Wohlberg, drafted in 2009 by the New Jersey Devils, has scored a goal in eight of his last 11 games.
Said Wohlberg, "We're three big bodies working hard, grinding it out and getting pucks to the net. And there's a chemistry right now that I can't explain, but it just seems to be working."
Berenson's explanation is that the recently potent offense has come from a renewed dedication to defense.
"I think it starts with your defensive game as a team — your goalie, your defense, and your forwards playing better without the puck," said Berenson. "Our penalty killing has been better, our 'D' zone coverage has been better, our defense are playing stronger. Greg Pateryn leads our defense. It's rock solid, and [senior goaltender Shawn] Hunwick is making the saves when we do give up a shot."
After the game, given the atmosphere and location, Berenson reminisced about his short-lived baseball career, failing to make the team at Michigan because of a catcher named Bill Freehan who was ahead of him on the depth chart. Freehan went on to win five Gold Gloves and play in 11 Major League Baseball All-Star Games.
Said Berenson, "I stuck to hockey."
With the win on Sunday, Berenson now has 741 career coaching victories. Most, of course, have been indoors. But the Wolverines are getting used to playing outside — perhaps another factor in their success last year in Ann Arbor and this week in Cleveland.
"Our team knows what it takes to play a game like this," said Berenson, who saw his team put the game out of reach in the second period with two goals in 28 seconds. "This was not only an important hockey game — it's an outdoor game where we could easily have been distracted. I really liked how our team came out and worked hard, and we got the bounces because of that."
In the end, the game created an almost football-like atmosphere, with Ohio State's marching band performing its famous Script Ohio routine on the ice — punctuated, so to speak, with its signature 'dotting of the i.'
A football atmosphere, on a baseball diamond, for a hockey game.
Whatever it felt like, it was a 4-1 victory for Michigan, as the Wolverines' swept the weekend series that began with a 4-0 shutout of the Buckeyes in Columbus two days earlier — overall, a much different result from earlier this season, when Ohio State swept Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Said Berenson after the outdoor win, "There's not a big difference between winning and losing... but there is."
And that difference may just be the Wolverines' new top line — who, on Sunday, on a baseball field in Cleveland, played like the heart of the order.